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|Precision dairy management: A new direction in dairy development|
|Dairy basics - New Technology|
|Written by Jack Rodenburg|
On a global basis, success in dairying has always meant different things in different regions, depending on markets, climate, land values, availability of labor and a variety of other factors. For the last 50 years, successful dairy development in North America has primarily revolved around saving labor and capital through economies of scale.
Once the loader tractor had replaced the shovel, it quickly became clear that when you take a bigger loader, fill a bigger mixer from a bigger bunker and drive a little farther a little faster, you feed a lot more cows with one unit of labor. And if you keep that equipment running all day you get more return on capital as well.
Mechanization, which expands the capacity of a unit of labor with machines, has ruled our industry throughout the 20th century. But since traditional machines require operators, mechanized dairies remain highly dependent on labor, and in many parts of the world labor is a resource that is increasing in cost faster than other inputs.
While mechanization made life better for farmers and herdsmen, we might question if it made life better for cows. When our grandparents fed Bessie with a shovel, she was an individual. Grandpa would have looked over her back to evaluate body condition, pondered her production level and stage of lactation and then decided whether she got two scoops or three.
And while our understanding of nutrition has made it possible to feed Bessie much better today, the big mechanized dairy can only offer so much individual care. In western Europe the high cost of labor has already led to a dramatic shift in the kind of technology being adopted, and many of the new tools offer the added benefit of allowing for more individual care.
Based on their experience, it appears that automation, in which the machine functions independent of an operator, will be to the 21st century, what mechanization was to the last hundred years. Add the use of a wide variety of sensors to collect information from animals, computers to interpret the information and robotics to apply the outcomes and we can begin to see a new direction in dairy development, where it may once again be practical and profitable to apply management on an individual cow level.
Industry leaders in Ontario, Canada, are encouraging North American dairy producers to explore these trends at an international conference on precision dairy management and robotics in March 2010. At www.precisiondairy2010.com you can check out their program. When it comes to automation in feeding and feed handling, each of the emerging technologies being marketed in Europe now have something to offer, but none appear to be the final answer.
If the goal is simply to take the labor out of what we do today, there are several technologies that take major steps in that direction. Lely has recently introduced the Juneau, a battery powered robot that follows a predefined path around the barn to push up feed.
On strictly labor saving, if you feed once per day and push up three times, this device might save you three 20-minute trips around the barn per day. One hour less labor at $10 per hour is worth $3,600 per year. If the robotic feed pusher costs $20,000, and you otherwise have a tractor or skid loader dedicated to the job, the capital investment is comparable, so it appears to be a reasonable investment.
Pushing up feed more frequently, especially late at night when it might not happen if labor was required, should also stimulate more frequent eating, higher feed intake and perhaps higher milk production. Sceptics will point out that these trips to the barn are also valuable for other reasons, but if the budget includes pedometry for heat detection and a camera for general observation, having labor in the barn at night may be unnecessary.
Several companies such as Rovibec, DeLaval, Mullerup and Pellon have harnessed computers and electronics in combination with stationary mixers and belt feeders or track-mounted TMR mixers to mix and deliver TMR. These companies claim they offer “fresh feed” several times per day, and when tower silos are used, they achieve it by using electronics to open and close sealed silo doors and lower and turn unloaders on and off.
Except for taking out the silo doors and monitoring the system, it appears that the job of feeding from tower silos can be fully automated. Unloading feed on demand from a bunker silo is much more challenging.
Most systems start with the dairyman removing silage from a packed, air-tight bunker three or four times a week and dumping it loose in a bin, which then feeds the automated delivery system. While these systems feed several times a day, it is only fresh as often as the bins are filled, and especially in hot weather, spoilage of ensiled feeds is a major problem.
In larger U.S. herds using these systems to deliver feed only would save labor but at current cost, not nearly enough to pay for the investment. A European company, Trioliet, has a track-mounted TMR mixer and a “feed kitchen” that the operator fills once per week with blocks of silage cut from the bunkers.
The kitchen has a computer-controlled travelling cutter and a feed transport belt with load cells. The cutter cuts a thin layer off each block which is weighed into the TMR mixer using the combined weight on the belt and in the mixer. Bin ingredients are added on the belt by automated augers, and liquids by automated pumps. The mix is unloaded at pre-programmed points along the track.
In terms of commercially available feeding automation, this is probably the most sophisticated system on the market. Proponents of these systems claim cost savings in barn construction because the feed alley can be much narrower when a track feeder replaces a truck or trailer- mounted mixer.
In big herds the need to deliver feed in several barns will make the track feeding aspect of these systems less attractive, but automated “pre batching” systems that measure all the small ingredients into a hopper to be added in a single drop to the silages in the mobile mixer, can be a cost-effective way to save labor and increase mixing accuracy.
At the 2008 Eurotier show, the Dutch company Schuitemaker introduced a totally different approach. Their “Innovado” is a robotically operated self-propelled TMR mixer. The prototype had a 1,000-cubic-foot-capacity vertical mixer and was powered by a 65-horsepower combustion engine that drives a variety of hydraulic and electric components.
It uses buried transponders and a scanning system to follow programmed pathways from the bunker silos to the drive-through feed alleys, driving at a maximum speed of 4 miles per hour. In the bunkers, the scanners define the face and direct the machine to a good cutting position. A face cutter with scales cuts the required amount of each ingredient.
Wet byproducts are loaded with a platform adaptor on the cutter. Wireless controls regulate augers, doors, unloaders, pumps and valves to load product from bins, upright silos and liquid tanks. The system can open and close doors and has a feed pusher that can push up feed or push away leftovers. It also has a manual back-up capability so it can be operated as a normal self-loading TMR mixer when there are problems.
This system offers greater flexibility for where feed is stored and delivered than track or belt systems; ensiled feeds are undisturbed right up to feeding time; it can push up and push out leftovers; and there is manual back-up.
But when all is said and done, automated feeding should offer us more than just labor savings. To rank as a precision technology rather than just automation, it should also offer the capability to feed cows more precisely according to their requirements. Computer feeders are able to do this with grain, but the benefits of TMR for rumen health are well known, so we really need a system that can offer each cow free-choice access to a TMR ration formulated precisely to meet its requirements.
More accurate formulation and mixing and the capacity to feed more groups take these technologies partway there. Track feeders are making individual TMRs now in tiestall barns, and for freestalls, such systems are in development and will likely be commercially available in the next two to three years.
So what will the dairy barn with automated feeding look like in the future? Ironically, feeding automation seems to be easiest to achieve with tower silos and tiestall barns. In the freestall barn, things are, as yet, unclear. The barn of the future might include a robotic mobile mixer and full-width drive- through feeding or a narrow alley serviced by a track feeder, or no feed alley at all and feeding stations that deliver cow-specific TMR computer-feeder style.
hWhile the barn we design today should focus on providing cow comfort and labor efficiency using the technology we have now, being aware of what technologies are on the horizon can be helpful in ensuring it works well in the future. Unfortunately, when it comes to feeding automation, which technologies will win out, and when they will become economically viable, is not very easy to pin down. PD
Jack Rodenburg is a retired dairy extension specialist in Ontario, Canada, now advising dairy producers on automation and robotics as DairyLogix Consulting.